External Affairs Minister Jaishankar while participating in the Informal Meeting of the SAARC Council of Ministers on Thursday emphasized that cross-border terrorism, blocking connectivity and obstructing trade as the three key challenges that SAARC must overcome. “Only then will we see enduring peace, prosperity and security in our South Asia region,” said Jaishanakar
EAM Jaishankar, in his statement, reiterated India’s steadfast commitment to SAARC in building a connected, integrated, secure and prosperous South Asia. He highlighted a slew of measures taken by India in the follow-up to the SAARC Leaders video conference, including virtually convening health professionals and trade officials meetings, creating a ‘COVID-19 Information Exchange Platform (COINEX), foreign currency swap support and activation of SAARC Food Bank mechanism.
The meeting, chaired by Nepal, was held in virtual mode and saw participation of all eight SAARC member states. Chairing the meeting Nepalese Foreign Minister Pradeep Kumar Gyawali emphasized the need to reinvigorate the SAARC process to make it more focused and result-oriented in meeting the hopes and aspirations of the people of South Asia. The informal meeting of SAARC is held annually since 1997 on the sidelines of United Nations General Assembly meetings. However this time since UNGA meetings are being held virtually in the backdrop of Corona pandemic, SAARC Foreign ministers also met through video conference to exchange views on SAARC issues.
The meeting received a report from the Secretary-General on the status of regional cooperation since the last informal meeting of the SAARC Council of Ministers was held in New York on in September 2019. Esala Ruwan Weerakoon, Secretary General of SAARC during his address, stated that SAARC holds the potential to promote effective regional cooperation in every sphere of development, including for addressing the challenges posed by the pandemic.
EAM Jaishakar also underlined India’s effort in mitigating the impact of the pandemic in the region. Furthering “Neighnourhood First” policy, India has supplied essential drugs, medical consumables, COVID protection and testing kits, and other equipment, amounting USD 2.3 million to countries in the SAARC region. EAM Jaishankar reiterated India’s continued commitment to assisting countries in the SAARC region in combating COVID-19 pandemic.
Moreover, India is also extending financial support to SAARC neighbours to support their developmental programme. While USD 150 million foreign currency swap support has been extended to Maldives, India has committed currency swap support of USD 200 million to Bhutan and USD 400 million to Sri Lanka during the course of this year.
The ministers reviewed regional efforts to combat the Covid-19 pandemic. Participant countries appreciated the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in convening a video conference of SAARC Leaders on 15th March 2020 to take collaborative measures towards combating the pandemic across the region. The meeting paved the way for creation of SAARC COVID-19 Emergency Fund where all countries have pledged voluntary contributions. India has Committed USD 10 million to the emergency fund.
One of the agenda items in the SAARC Ministerial meeting was 19th SAARC Summit, which is to be hosted by Pakistan. However a common ground could not be reached upon as most Countries felt that it was not an opportunate time for the event considering that member states are preoccupied in dealing with COVID 19 situation. Sources said that the proposal fell through due to lack of consensus.
SAARC has been in sort of limbo ever since the 18th summit which was held in Kathmandu in 2014. Pakistan was supposed to host the next summit level meeting in 2016, but New Delhi decided to withdraw from the summit following the terrorist attack in Uri, Kashmir in 2016. The situation, in a unique way, has kept Nepal as the chair of the group since 2014, the longest any country has held the position in the history of SAARC.
– Report By Abhishek Jha